‘African American History Is American History’: WCCUSD Honors Black West Contra Costans

“African American history is American history,” WCCUSD board President Jamela Smith-Folds said Wednesday. “It should be celebrated every single month, taught every single month. It should be honored every single month.”  (Screenshot captured by Samantha Kennedy / The CC Pulse)

By Samantha Kennedy

The West Contra Costa school board approved a resolution honoring African American History Month on Wednesday that recognized the contributions of African Americans in West Contra Costa and encouraged commemoration of the occasion. 

“African American history is American history,” board President Jamela Smith-Folds said. “It should be celebrated every single month, taught every single month. It should be honored every single month.” 

The resolution recognized the work of local African American leaders, such as George D. Carroll, the first African American to serve as a council member and mayor of Richmond and Irma Anderson, who was the first Black woman to serve as a council member and mayor of that city. 

Clerk Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy, wearing a Black History Month button, thanked the leadership of the African American board members, the superintendent and his cabinet. 

District schools will display the Pan-African flag during the month. 

Community member Zelon Harrison, who co-founded the Black Parent Resources Center, suggested the district create a Swahili language-school to attract Black students. 

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Trustee Mister Phillips liked this idea, saying he “supports an African-language school wholeheartedly.” The Mandarin language school in the district, West County Mandarin, should be used as a model, he said, due to its success. 

“When we have an opportunity to do, I think we should,” Phillips said. “That’s the way we celebrate best these kinds of months.” 

While commemorating African American leaders, Smith-Folds said, “take them in totality” and not just “what history has deemed digestible.” 

She read an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to illustrate her point. 

“. . . the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler, not the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice,” she read. 

King’s letter was in response to criticism he and the civil rights movement faced for methods they used to combat segregation. Several white clergymen authored “A Call for Unity” that called the then-ongoing Birmingham campaign “unwise and untimely,” asking the Black community to instead “observe the principle of law and order and common sense.” 

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The night also brought a conversation to the board at the end of the meeting, where Smith-Folds read a statement in response to the actions of Trustee Leslie Reckler, the only white member of the board. 

Smith-Folds specifically referred to Reckler’s actions during and after the Jan. 10 meeting where she was censured. At the end of that meeting, Reckler said in her comments to stand up to bullies, seemingly directed toward, at least in part, Smith-Folds and Gonzalez-Hoy. 

That censure meant Reckler could not serve on any committees or attend graduations on behalf of the board. However, Reckler’s tearful request to attend the graduation of her child at El Cerrito High School was approved at the Jan. 25 special meeting. 

“White tears trump everything else,” Smith-Folds said. “. . . it brings men to their knees and it creates this shallow need for them to protect you… Black women see the misuse of your tears and feel that double standard like the windstruck nerve of a rotting tooth.” 

Smith-Folds said Reckler’s retelling of events and how she characterizes other board members are “laced in microaggressions and blanketed in the bullhorn of dog whistles.” A dog whistle is coded language that is different from a word or phrase’s literal meaning. This language communicates ideas to like-minded people who would otherwise be criticized for more obvious behaviors. 

Phillips said the censure, though he didn’t agree with it, was enough and that the statement by Smith-Folds should have been done in private. 

“I think we need to leave that woman alone,” Phillips said. 

Smith-Folds said what she did “was exactly what needs to be done” for the district to be anti-racist. 

“It may have been uncomfortable,” she said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be said.” 

Reckler did not respond to Smith-Folds’ comments. 

The next West Contra Costa school board meeting is Feb. 14.

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